After no hearings and no input from Congress, President Obama unveiled a new strategy last week that unilaterally changed long-standing bipartisan defense policy. As he spoke, flanked by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and a host of military brass, some of the president’s language may have sounded familiar.
A year ago Britain, our predecessor superpower, announced sweeping defense cuts that have reduced its military to a shadow of its former capability.
I do not seek to criticize our British friends, a critical ally; they are working hard to do what’s best for their citizens. But it is instructive to listen to the way British leaders sold their military reductions to citizens. When it came time to make significant defense cuts, downsizing that can only accurately be described as immense, London salved the wound with such efficacy that it was plagiarized by the Obama administration.
The British Strategic Defense and Security Review cut the Royal Air Force’s fighter force to around 200 planes. Forty percent of the British army’s tanks are being put in storage. The Royal Navy combat fleet has been whittled down to about the same size as the task force formed for the Falklands War with Argentina 30 years ago. The joke goes that today’s Royal Navy has more admirals than warships.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s justification for the broad reductions was “this is not simply a cost-saving exercise to get to grips with the biggest budget deficit in postwar history; it is about taking the right decisions to protect our national security in the years ahead.”
In unveiling the review, Cameron said that, despite the reductions, Britain would continue to provide “the most professional and flexible modern forces in the world,” vigilant against “all possible threats.” A year later, President Obama said our armed forces would be “agile, flexible, and ready for a full range of contingencies and operations.”
Both emphasized balance between domestic and defense spending. The British said that bringing the “defense budget back to balance is a vital part of how we tackle the deficit and protect this country’s national security.” Obama said that “it’s time to restore that balance” among national programs.
Both made attempts to justify additional risk incurred by reducing forces by retaining the capacity to reverse defense spending cuts. Cameron pledged that Britain would be able to “regenerate” capabilities gutted in the cutbacks. Obama’s review promised “reversibility” to mitigate “shocks or evolutions.”